Facebook must change its mind

Over 90% of the reports shown in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s graph below came from Facebook owned properties, principally Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct. Yet the company intends to avert its eyes from these Apps. It will do so by introducing strong encryption.

Facebook does not claim the act of closing its eyes will have any impact on the level of illegal activity. They acknowledge that, although if anything one might expect the level of illegal behaviour to increase as more people realise they can never be caught.

To excuse or justify their intentions Facebook are saying two main things.

One is that a lot of the publishing of the images which are then reported to NCMEC is not being done by “bad people”. Rather it is being done by people who are expressing their outrage or disgust, or they think it is some kind of joke.

Hmm. These are not defences known to law and for the victims it makes zero difference. Whether or not people should be arrested and prosecuted for a lapse in good taste or for being outraged or disgusted is a separate question. What never changes is the urgency of getting the images removed and stopping them from being circulated further.

Facebook will not be able to do that if it blinds itself.

The second is Facebook says it will take other steps to identify miscreants and intervene to kick them off the platform e.g. through analysing meta data and patterns of behaviour. Shouldn’t they be doing that anyway? It is not an alternative because it does not get around the fundamental point. Whereas now Facebook can see things, in future….

There may also have been a riff in a minor key about the number of duplicate reports, somehow implying the problem isn’t as large as it might otherwise first seem. Wrong. But anyway see the numbers in the graph.

Through their own appalling behaviour Facebook substantially created what they say is people’s new desire for greater privacy. The company has come up with the wrong answer. It is an answer which inevitably will harm children.

They need to find a better one. If they don’t I am afraid I for one will leave Facebook and all its Apps. It will be inconvenient, at least for a while, but I doubt I will be alone and I think it will become very difficult for children’s advocates or groups to continue thinking of or describing Facebook as a “partner”.

As the Victorians used to say, if it goes ahead Facebook will be “putting itself outside the boundaries of polite society” and no amount of largesse, grants or free flights to and high class hotels in exotic locations, no pr front will be able to cover that up.

I can see Facebook feel unjustly treated. They are uniquely exposed because of their size and because they have been transparent in the past whereas other platforms have escaped similar scrutiny and criticism because they are smaller or because they already deploy strong encryption so no reports or fewer reports reach NCMEC linked to their name. I get that. But it does not alter the basic facts.

Finally, let’s be clear: this decision will be taken by a single person. Mark Zuckerberg. I very much hope he makes the right one.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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